This year is a very busy one for smart and practical travelers to local and foreign destinations. For those looking for accommodation alternatives to expensive hotel chains or cheap hostels, there is Airbnb.
A website in which people list, find and rent lodging, Airbnb-originally named AirBed & Breakfast-was conceived in 2007 in San Francisco by roommates who wanted to make some money by renting their loft to guests attending an event where hotels were fully booked.
This month, a metrics report released by the site says that 17 million travelers from around the world stayed with Airbnb hosts in 150 countries from May to August. That's more than double the number compared to the same period recorded last year.
The report noted that the average age of Airbnb guests during this period was 35, with female guests comprising 54 per cent, and male guests, 46 per cent.
Additional data revealed that Airbnb's fastest growing markets overall are South Korea, Japan and Singapore.
China is described as "one of the fastest growing markets in terms of country of origin for travelers booking stays outside their country."
A godsend for foreign tourists who want to experience local life in a homey setting, Airbnb offers online booking for lodging
directly with an actual homeowner.
Depending on one's needs, there are choices from single rooms and apartments to homes outfitted with cooking, dining and leisure facilities.
On a recent trip to Italy, we toured Ravenna and Florence after a media coverage of the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. For the first time we tried Airbnb-downloading the free app (available on iOS and Android) on our phone and tablet, checking which days we would be traveling, browsing through the different accommodations and narrowing down our choices.
There is a tendency to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of lodging offers, so it might help to have a list of "requirements."
We wanted rooms located near the train stations-in Ravenna and Santa Maria Novella in Florence-because we didn't want to spend our euros on taxi fare or hop on a bus and end up getting lost.
Lugging just one medium-sized trolley and a small tote, we intended to walk to and from our Airbnb accommodations.
Friends advised us to read the reviews and stick to those that had been favoured by dozens, if not hundreds, of travelers. If a property has high marks but has only been reviewed by a handful of people, it's probably too good to be true.
Sift through the choices and look for key words and sentences, like: "the host responds quickly to e-mail and text messages"; "be prepared to walk up three flights of stairs, there is no elevator"; or "the house is a 20-minute trudge from the train station via uneven cobblestones, not five minutes."
Ask yourself what you're willing to live with or without while you're there. Is air-conditioning a nonnegotiable? Do you really need a TV? Are you willing to share a bathroom? Do you plan to do a load laundry? Our respective answers were: It depends; no; yes; and no.
After a couple of hours browsing, we chose and booked the rooms based on our requirements.
Two weeks later in Ravenna, we walked for 10 minutes from the train station, following our host's concise directions and arrived in a quiet residential street.
The loft we booked was not what we expected-it was much better! It had its own private entrance and bathroom and had air-conditioning-something we failed to consider in the hot Italian summer.
After spending the whole morning and part of the afternoon walking and gazing at the stunning mosaics dating back to the 5th century, we also lounged around in air-cooled comfort.
For dinner one evening, we bought a chunk of burrata (fresh mozzarella and cream) at the corner deli, a loaf of crusty bread, and had a picnic in our room.
Feast for the senses
Florence was another feast for the senses. The single room we booked was five minutes away from the train station and looked over the Mercato Centrale and the city's leather market where bags, belts and coin purses of questionable origin were on display from morning till around 8 p.m.
From our perch, we could smell that heady, unmistakable scent of leather. Reviews on Airbnb had warned about the noise late at night when the mechanical sweepers cleared the area of debris, and early in the morning when the vendors set up shop, but that was no problem. We had to close the windows anyway to keep out the mosquitoes. Fortunately, we had come prepared with enough bug spray.
The next day, we posed for a snapshot in front of Michelangelo's David at the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze; stood transfixed before Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery; and walked across the Ponte Vecchio, a Medieval arch bridge over the Arno River.
But it also felt good to return to the apartment and sip the Italian wine Carmine that our Airbnb host had left in our room.